Elios: A Safer Way Forward for Ship Inspections

The seaworthiness of a vessel is one of the most important considerations for any maritime operator. Whether you are responsible for a small passenger ship or bulk carrier, compliance laws are getting stricter to ensure that crew members and passengers are kept safe and marine pollution levels are kept to a minimum. Penalties can be serious, but if a ship isn’t inspected and maintained, it can also have a serious detrimental effect on a ship’s trading ability, meaning additional time waiting for critical repairs either stuck in port or out at sea.

The ISM Code specifies that every company should develop, implement and maintain a Safety Management System to ensure safety at sea, prevention of human injury or loss of life, and avoidance of damage to the environment, in particular, the marine environment. Any ship operator has an obligation to ensure that inspections are carried out at regular intervals, or face crippling fines in the event of an incident.

Taking preventative measures is surely better than suffering mechanical failure in the middle of a voyage or fighting a lengthy legal battle, but with the costs associated with regular inspections, many operators still choose to take the risk. Any kind of inspection is notoriously difficult on a ship. The industrial nature of the environment, combined with the harsh conditions to which vessels are exposed mean that regular inspections of a ships structural integrity as well as its tanks and internal infrastructure need to be carried out at least once every 12 months. But surveys take time – hundreds of man hours can be spent inspecting each and every nook and cranny of a ship’s internal and external structure – looking for structural deformation, cracks and any signs of wear and tear which may pose a risk to either crew members, passengers or the marine environment. Time is money after all.

Time-saving technology. One of the greatest benefits of technological advancement is the amount of time it has saved us completing basic or laborious tasks. From maps on smart phones to email, many of us don’t know how we survived without digital technology and there are greater innovations being released each day, with automotive vehicles and robotic healthcare systems already being trialed across the world. One technology that is having a massive disruptive impact in many commercial sectors is the Unmanned Aerial System (UAS). In just 3 years, UAS or drones have revolutionized the way we can look at the world and our surroundings. Commercial UAS are saving businesses huge amounts of time and money.

The ability to remotely view and capture imagery from the air has meant that UAS are being used to complete commercial and industrial tasks, which are notoriously difficult and dangerous for workers. From inspections of tall structures such as powerlines and wind turbines, to assisting with search and rescue missions in an emergency situation such as a fire, drones are making hazardous working conditions a consideration of the past in many industries.

Drones have limitations, though. Many drones are limited in flight time, payload capacity, and also need a clear space in which to fly, making them suitable for outdoor use only. These limitations have meant that a survey of complex structures or confined indoor spaces still have to be completed manually. The most common drones on the market, both in the commercial and hobbyist markets are quadcopters. As the name suggests, quadcopters have four rotors, which propel the drone vertically into the air. These exposed rotors mean that the drone relies on clear airspace for both safety and performance. High winds and heavy particles such as sand and dust can render many models unflyable. The exposed rotors also pose a risk of personal injury as well as damage to the unit should it come into contact with a person or object such as a wall, or tree; again, meaning a quadcopter cannot be used in close-quarters.

UAS is one technology attracting huge amounts of investment from venture capitalists and private investors, with manufacturers striving to be the first to lift the current limitations of the technology. Innovation is focused on improving battery life, or removing the need for a battery completely, improving payload capacity to allow for heavier sensors to be attached such as LiDAR and Radar systems – UAS technology is changing and improving at a stunning rate of NOTS (Near-Surface Ocean Thermal Structures).

The idea of flying a drone in a confined space would make most drone pilots wince. Also, limited visibility into the scenario and the concept is unthinkable. This is the scenario faced by those who carry out ship inspections: dark and cramped conditions, with limited visibility and maneuverability. Climbing inside a pressure vessel, chemical or gas tank is a daunting task for ship operators, with lighting, safety rigs and access equipment needing to be set up prior to inspection. For the surveyor, it’s worse and the risks are huge. If only there was a way to send in a drone to do the dirty work!

Enter the Elios, the world’s first collision-tolerant UAS. Elios can be operated safely indoors, in complex and confined spaces and in places where they could come in to contact with people. It is the first UAS of its kind to be designed with a frame to protect the rotors. This means that is can bounce off, or roll across obstacles or people without any damage to the unit or person. The Elios presents great advantages to maritime operators who wish to improve the safety and efficiency of their surveys. One unit can carry out tasks in just minutes, as opposed to hours it would take a human operator. Ready to deploy almost instantly, the Elios also provides the ability to capture data and imagery remotely, which can be accessed immediately. In the event of an incident or potential threat to the ship’s integrity, this fast response can be crucial to limiting damage or downtime.

Traditional tank inspections often require units to be drained, cleaned and ventilated before surveying crews could be permitted access. Often air pollutants also need to be monitored to ensure the safety of those entering the space. Add to this the amount of time taken to erect scaffolding or safe rope access and you could be talking days before the area is rendered safe enough for work to commence. Yet the Elios can be used to carry out an initial inspection without any of these considerations, allowing an accurate assessment to be made as to the maintenance work required, saving time, and money.

And then there was light. Laws in most countries prohibit UAS operators from flying too closely to buildings, vehicles and people. This is due to a perceived lack of control of the unit, which could pose a risk to people and infrastructure. Thanks to its protective cage, the Elios poses no such risk. It is also equipped with an innovative wireless communication system, which provides live video feedback, allowing the pilot to fly in places beyond their visual capacity, whilst maintaining navigational control. Its 2.4Ghz communication link offers high-quality data transfer and is easy to use. Imaging feeds are also saved to an onboard data card to allow retrospective analysis.

The Elios also features onboard LED lighting, which helps the pilot to navigate, as well as improving the quality of the video and images collected. The standard payloads also include a separate integrated thermal camera, which can help further where visibility is limited. Thermal imaging cameras provide a non-intrusive way of identifying temperature differentials, which can be present in an impending mechanical failure. Thermal imaging is also great at detecting leaks and cracks in tanks and other structures and can even detect moisture intrusion, which can be difficult with the naked eye; on a ship, this can be an invaluable early warning sign of a bigger problem.

One of the greatest benefits of UAS systems has been the ability to collect imagery, data and video remotely, removing surveying staff from potentially hazardous situations. The Elios Ground Station enhances its proposition by giving the UAS pilot access to live telemetry data and SD video being captured by the Elios in real-time. The telemetry data interface communicates battery level, signal strength and relative heading and altitude, all important measurements for any drone flight, yet specific to the Ground Station is the ability to monitor light intensity and camera exposure. When carrying out inspections inside a ship, or tank, light will be limited. Being able to monitor conditions and adjust settings to suit can be the difference between a successful survey and a waste of time and money.

Compliance made easy. Utilizing drone technology can make all the difference when complying with the ISM code and creating a robust and easy to execute Safety Management System. With such high importance placed on crew and passenger welfare, anything that can help to lessen exposure to hazards has to be explored. Autonomous technologies are set to revolutionize our world and whilst we wait for our driverless cars, which will cut road deaths, and robots, which will carry out surgical procedures, we can make use of the technology we have now. UAS are proven to increase the safety of workers in numerous situations. The Elios has now shown that this is possible even under the most difficult of circumstances. Ships are dangerous places with unique characteristics and hazards that require specialist considerations.

Martek Marine specializes in innovative solutions, which support the stability and future of the marine industry. We are working with the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) and other flag administrations, major classification societies and major ship operators to help them to utilize the power of drones for business growth and improved crew welfare.

The range of sensors available for drones transcends cameras and HD video. Air quality monitoring sensors are available to detect and confirm the presence of toxic gases before they become a threat. LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) scanners can be incorporated to create 3D visualizations of large and complex structures such as rigs and the outside of large vessels.

Martek Marine also leads the way in EU fuel sulphur limit compliance. We are the only maritime company with expertise in both UAS and marine emissions monitoring, so do speak to us about your compliance responsibilities, and how UAS can help to ensure that your vessels are operating within the law.